February 7, 2017

Higher ed changes could ‘whitewash’ universities, some professors warn


Statue of a Lobo on the University of New Mexico campus. Flickr cc

Some professors, students and advocates at the state’s flagship university are warning proposed sweeping changes to the state’s higher education system could undermine academic freedom and programs like ethnic studies.

A bill sponsored by state Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs would scale back the number of required credit hours students take in public university “general education core” classes and establish “meta-majors.”

“Meta-major” classes are defined in the bill as “lower division courses” that are set by the department and include general education courses and prerequisite courses.

At a Senate Education Committee hearing last week, Kernan said her bill’s purpose is to make it easier for students who transfer to different universities to use the credits they’ve already earned from previous courses toward their college degrees.

Kernan’s bill is supported by New Mexico Higher Education Department Secretary Barbara Damron.

At last week’s hearing, Damron described meta-majors as a group of courses set under a list of broad subjects that undecided college students can choose from to create a path toward their eventual major.

This would replace the current system of having a college advisor set the course path for each student, according to Diane Torres-Velasquez, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico.

But Torres-Velasquez and others are opposed to the change because of a perceived top-down approach that places business and workplace skills over critical thinking and education.

“Are we trying to educate students or are we trying to get them in and out as fast as we can and into jobs right away?” Myrriah Gomez, also an associate professor at UNM, asked rhetorically in an interview. “It’s another effort to corporatize education, in my opinion.”

Chief among Torres-Velasquez’s concerns are that the reform could “whitewash” courses like Chicano studies by leaving them out of the list of required classes within meta-majors curriculums.

Both professors lament that students and faculty were not properly included in discussions on establishing meta-majors in the state, which have been ongoing for the past few years.

“It would be problematic for administrators to come in and tell us what the meta-majors are because that would affect our academic freedom,” Torres-Velasquez said.

This criticism prompted an emotional defensive from Damron, who explained that she reached out to every group and entity affected by the changes “more than anyone has reached out to them before” for input.

“I’m offended that anything I’ve done has been done differently than that,” Damron said holding back tears.

Damron observed that most of the public comments in opposition to the bill came from people associated with UNM. She blamed the university for that.

“I’m sorry there’s one institution that has communication problems,” she said.

Damron also contended that meta-majors don’t have to leave out ethnic studies courses.

“Meta-major helps group subjects together. Ethnic studies can fall into group,” she said.

Kernan added her daughter graduated from Colorado College with an ethnic studies degree and emphasized that the intent of her bill is to streamline transferring student credits between universities. She and lawmakers from the committee praised Damron for “working diligently.”

“I’m certainly always open to talk to anyone,” Kernan added.

The action leading to this controversy seeded more than a decade ago, when the state Legislature passed a bill designed to ease the burden of transferring college course credits between public universities across the state. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Bill Richardson in 2005 and established August 2017 as the deadline for the new way of transferring college credits.

Originally, the law was only supposed to change the course numbers in lower-division classes “in a way that was common to all universities,” Torres-Velasquez said. But as the deadline approached, “all of a sudden there was not only going to be a change in course numbers, but a change in the general education core.”

Meta-majors exist at universities in some other states.

Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth, Florida, for example, offers meta-majors in broad categories like “science, technology, engineering and mathematics” and “arts, humanities, communication and design”—both of which require students to take some of the same lower-division general requirement courses.

Ultimately, the concerns were not enough to dissuade state senators on the committee from moving the bill unanimously to the next committee.

“This is not rushed,” Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, said of the bill just before the committee unanimously approved it. “I’m very supportive of it.”

State Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, raised concerns about the process.

“It should concern all of us that we have a large number of students who don’t like what we’re doing and are here because of that,” Stewart said. “I think they bring up valid concerns.”

The bill now heads to the Senate Finance Committee.

One legislator, state Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, is opposed to the bill, at least for now. At last week’s committee hearing, she said in public comment that “this particular process has not been as inclusive as we have hoped for.”

“Ethnic studies is the core, women’s studies is the core,” Roybal Caballero said. “All of these studies are core to education, however we are not included in the discussion.”

Correction: A previous version of this story reported that Sen. Mimi Stewart voted for the bill. She in fact did not vote on the bill.